Ignorance in the Upanishads
In the Upanishads there has been a change in terminology. Satyam Rtam have been replaced by Vidya, acitti by Avidya. Vidya, Knowledge came to be "purely and trenchantly the knowledge of the One" (Ibid) while Ignorance, Avidya, purely and trenchantly became the knowledge of the divided Many divorced from the unitary consciousness of the One Reality. The language differs from the Vedas, it has become "more precise and metaphysical, less psychological and flexible". (Ibid) Yet it does not denote the post-Upanishadic view of the Ignorance as absolutely separate from the Self, a dream or a hallucination. Instead it promotes the view that "he who follows after the Knowledge only, enters as if into a blinder darkness than he who follows after the Ignorance and that the man who knows Brahman as both the Ignorance and the Knowledge, as both the One and the Many, as both the Becoming and the Non-Becoming, crosses by the Ignorance, by the experience of the Multiplicity, beyond death and by the Knowledge takes possession of Immortality." (Ibid, pg.491) Actually, the status of Being surpasses the status of Becoming but it is "the Being that becomes all that is in the universe". (Ibid)
Ignorance in view of dialectical intellect
In the post-Upanishadic period, the dialectical intellect prevailed and the separative distinction between Knowledge and Ignorance reached its logical extreme. In the "rigidly analytic and dialectical view" (Ibid), a strict opposition was erected between Knowledge and Ignorance. Avidya is pure Ignorance, "it is not merely a not-knowing of Truth, but a creation of illusions and delusions, of seemingly real unrealities, of temporarily valid falsehoods". (Ibid) Avidya cannot abide, the Many are an illusion and the world has no real being. The world has a sort of existence but it lasts as a dream or a hallucination lasts. The One can never become the Many, "it is only the Mind or some principle of which Mind is a result that thrusts names and forms upon the featureless unity which is alone real....or else, if it manifests these things, then that is a temporal and temporary reality which vanishes and is convicted of unreality by the illumination of true knowledge". (Ibid, pg.491-492)
Knowledge and Ignorance in the Integral perspective
Sri Aurobindo departs from the dialectical intellect to return to the original Vedantic or Upanishadic viewpoint but admits two of the main contentions, "the sole Reality of the Brahman and the fact that our normal conceptions about ourselves and world-existence are stamped with ignorance, are imperfect, are misleading". (Ibid, pg.492) While rejecting the strong hold of Maya on intelligence, Sri Aurobindo is practical enough to admit that this long held obsession cannot be removed altogether unless we know the true nature of Ignorance and Knowledge. "For if these two are independent, equal and original powers of the Consciousness, then the possibility of a cosmic Illusion pursues us". (Ibid) If Ignorance is the very character of cosmic existence, then our experience of the universe can be illusory. "Or, if Ignorance is not the very grain of our natural being, but still an original and eternal power of Consciousness, then, while there can be a truth of cosmos, it may be impossible for a being in the universe, while he is in it, to know its truth" (Ibid) ; he may have to soar above the world-formation to view things from a supra-cosmic poise. The solution to this problem needs a detailed penetration of the relevant facts of Consciousness.
The dialectical intellect does not sufficiently judge spiritual truths and binds us with words and abstract ideas. (Ibid, pg.493) Actually, reasoning can be conclusive only if we have all the data but that is what we miss. Truth cannot be fully captured by the rigid frame of logic. Being is the fundamental object of enquiry but it needs to be approached from a superconscient and transcendental poise that necessitates a consciousness perspective. It is a deep study of consciousness that can reveal the true nature of Knowledge, Ignorance and Illusion.
Mind and Beyond Mind
But ordinarily we identify our consciousness with Mind. Mind does not represent the whole of us, we have a life and body, a subconscious and Inconscience and also a spiritual entity that leads to an occult inward consciousness and the superconscience. If Mind were our exclusive consciousness, then Illusion and Ignorance might be considered natural as they would occur whenever the Mind is compromised. Logically this could lead to conceive the Mind to be a matrix for Ignorance which creates a false world born from a subjective construction. Or else Mind is a matrix where some original Illusion or Ignorance, Maya or Avidya planted the seeds of a false impermanent universe. But to believe in all this would mean imposing a cosmic imagination or an illusion-consciousness on the eternal Reality. This could lead to many possibilities. Brahman the Reality must have the support of a constructing mind but could also be seen in the role of participation as a victim of its own illusion and error. Or Mind would be a mirror reflecting an original illusion or a false image or shadow of the Reality. Both the origin of the illusion and the origin of the false image would be inexplicable. "An indeterminable Brahman could only be reflected as something indeterminable, not as a manifold universe." (Ibid, pg.494-495)
However, "There must be some manifold truth of the one Reality which is reflected, however falsely or imperfectly, in the manifold images of the mind's universe. It could then very well be that the world might be a reality and only the mind's construction of it or picture of it erroneous or imperfect. But this would imply that there is a Knowledge, other than our mental thought and perception which is only an attempt at knowing, a true cognition which is aware of the Reality and aware also in it of the truth of a real universe". (Ibid, pg.495)
If the highest Reality and an ignorant Mind alone exist, then we have to accept Ignorance as an original power of the Brahman and source of Avidya and Maya. Maya would then be an eternal power of Brahman and Mind would be an ignorant consciousness of a soul that exists as part of Maya. Maya would be Brahman's power to create illusions knowingly and Mind its power to take them for realities! "But if Brahman is essentially and always one in self-awareness, this trick would not be possible". (Ibid) If Brahman can divide itself in that fashion, one part knowing and the other part not knowing, then Brahman must be capable of a double or manifold action, one a consciousness of Reality, the other a consciousness of illusion or one an ignorant consciousness and the other a superconscience. This duality is logically impossible but if admitted supports a spiritual mystery. But once we admit this mystery, we can admit this other fact of the One becoming always many and the Many becoming the One. This appears to be dialectically impossible but presents as an eternal fact and law of existence. If accepted, there is no need for the intervention of an illusive Maya as the illusory creator of the illusory world-phenomena. Instead, we can accept the conception of an Infinite or Eternal which is capable of manifesting many aspects and processes which can be regarded as real expressions of the infinite Reality. Even the Inconscience and Ignorance could be accepted as reverse processes, powers of an involved consciousness brought forward at a certain movement in Time, a movement of involution and evolution of the Reality. "If suprarational in its basis, this total conception is not altogether a paradox; it only demands a change, an enlargement in our conceptions of the Infinite". (Ibid, pg.496)
But Mind is not only a power of Ignorance, it has a power of truth, it serves both Avidya and Vidya even if the path to the latter runs a crooked course. It carries the impulse towards truth-seeking and truth-creation. It shows images or representations of truth, truth-reflections or truth-formations derived from higher or deeper realities in consciousness. While Mind touches Matter and Life in an incomplete way, the Spirit houses supernal realities of which Mind is a partial or rudimentary receiver or transmitter. Therefore o know the whole reality we have to access zones of consciousness that surpass the Mind, The most important thing is the truth of the Supreme Consciousness and its relation to "Mind, Supermind, Infra-Mind and the Inconscience". (Ibid, pg.497)
Unity governing Multiplicity
Our view of things change when we penetrate the lower and higher depths of consciousness and unite them in one omnipresent Reality. We find an unity governing all multiplicity though the multiplicity is undeniable. We find unity everywhere and no blinding dualism; "oneness and multiplicity are poles of the same Reality; the dualities that trouble our consciousness are contrasted truths of one and the same Truth of being. "All multiplicity resolves itself into a manifoldness of the one Being, the one Consciousness of Being, the one Delight of Being. Thus in the duality of pleasure and pain, we have seen that pain is a contrary effect of the one delight of existence resulting from the weakness of the recipient....it is a perverse reaction of Consciousness to Ananda, not itself a fundamental opposite of Ananda: this is shown by the significant fact that pain can pass into pleasure and pleasure into pain and both resolve into the original Ananda". (Ibid, pg.497) Likewise, every form of weakness is a particular working of the one Divine Will-Force or the one Cosmic Energy. Therefore, Ignorance is also nothing than a power of the one divine Knowledge-Will or Maya, it is the capacity of the One consciousness to regulate and hold back the action of Knowledge. Knowledge and Ignorance are therefore not two irreconcilable principles but two co-existent powers, one in their essence and able to pass naturally into each other. "But in their fundamental relation Ignorance would not be an equal co-existent, it would be dependent on Knowledge, a limitation or a contrary action of Knowledge." (Ibid, pg.498)
Three poises of Consciousness
An dispassionate observation of the facts of existence reveals three distinct poises of the power of consciousness:
(a) First is the supreme consciousness that is "behind all, embracing all, within all, which is eternally, universally, absolutely aware of itself whether in unity or multiplicity or in both simultaneously or beyond both in its sheer absolute". (Ibid) It is the plenitude of the supreme divine self-knowledge and the divine all-knowledge.
(b) Second is the Nescience at the other pole where consciousness dwells in "apparent oppositions in itself". (Ibid) It is a "effective, dynamic, creative Inconscience" (Ibid) which holds the opposite values of the Superconscient in a dormant state to be released during the evolutionary phase. Therefore the divine knowledge acts with "s sovereign security and sureness within the operations of the Inconscient". (Ibid)
(c) Third, between the two oppositions stands a mediary term of consciousness "working with a partial, limited self-awareness which is equally superficial, for behind it and acting through it is the divine All-Knowledge. Here in its intermediate status, it seems to be a standing compromise between the two opposites, between the supreme Consciousness and the Nescience, but may prove rather in a larger view of our data to be an incomplete emergence of the Knowledge to the surface. This compromise or imperfect emergence we call the Ignorance....because ignorance is our own characteristic way of the soul's self-withholding of complete self-knowledge." (Ibid, pg.498-499)
Knowledge concealed in Ignorance
If Knowledge and Ignorance were two completely independent powers of Consciousness, they would cease only in the Absolute from where they were released. It might then be concluded that the only real knowledge was that of the Superconscient Absolute and the cosmos including the human being was "a pursuing shadow of Ignorance". (Ibid, pg.499) It might be assumed then that an absolute Knowledge establishing truth and harmony and an absolute Inconscience supporting fantasy and disharmony are at the root of cosmic existence. The idea that there is an absolute good but also an absolute evil might gain credence. "But if we find that Knowledge and Ignorance are light and shadow of the same consciousness, that the beginning of Ignorance is a limitation of Knowledge, that it is the limitation that opens the door to a subordinate possibility of partial illusion and error , that this possibility takes full body after a purposeful plunge of Knowledge into a material Inconscience but that Knowledge too emerges along with an emerging Consciousness out of the inconscience, then we can be sure that this fullness of Ignorance is by its own evolution changing back into a limited Knowledge and can feel the assurance that the limitation itself will be removed and the full truth of things become apparent, the cosmic Truth free itself from the cosmic Ignorance. In fact, what is happening is that the Ignorance is seeking and preparing to transform itself by a progressive illumination of its darknesses into the Knowledge that is already concealed within it." (Ibid, pg.500) To verify this we have to study the structure of our being and the relation of the inner being within it to the Superconscious above, the Inconscience below, the Cosmic Consciousness around it.
Date of Update:
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu